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Changing priorities in the UK’s energy mix

Posted By Luke Clark, 04 October 2017

Since the announcement last Monday that the cost of new offshore wind farms has fallen by nearly 50% in just over two years, the debate over the implications of this spectacular reduction has played out in Parliament, in the newspapers and across social media. This has largely pitted different power sources against each other in a zero-sum game. The offshore wind industry, however, has always supported the idea of an energy mix of various generation technologies in the UK to meet the challenge of providing secure, affordable and clean energy to consumers.

We have argued that a mix of technologies is needed because each technology has different characteristics. Wind power, of course, requires the wind to blow in order to generate electricity. Off the UK’s coasts, the winds are stronger and steadier meaning we can generate power at scale and do it at low cost. We have always supported new nuclear power as part of the energy mix. Nuclear power stations can generate huge amounts of low-carbon power but they cannot be ramped up or turned down quickly to match changes in demand. We believe the mix should also include onshore wind as it’s the cheapest source of new power, as well as innovative technologies like wave and tidal energy.

However, the mix isn’t only about generation technologies. There is a slew of new technologies coming forward to help the grid manage supply and demand – batteries are just one example, alongside smart appliances, electric vehicles and potentially revolutionary algorithms from tech companies like Google’s DeepMind. So we need a mix of technologies to ensure that we meet demand at all times, and do so cheaply while also cutting polluting emissions.

Last month’s astounding announcement showed that offshore wind can produce power for under 6p per kilowatt hour – lower than the cost of new nuclear and new gas plants. That doesn’t change the need for an energy mix, but it does change how we think about the costs of the choices we make in building that mix.

We shouldn’t be bashful about the scale of the offshore wind industry’s achievement in bringing down the cost of this technology, which is still a relatively new kid on the block in energy terms. A halving of technology costs in such a short space of time is simply not something we normally see in infrastructure. You might see it in consumer electronics or telecoms but certainly not in other large infrastructure projects.

And the offshore wind industry has proven it can deliver at scale. Since 2010 we’ve built over 5,000 megawatts of new offshore wind capacity, and we’re bringing investment of over £20 billion to our country over the course of this decade. These projects have delivered new power capacity on time, and alongside the turbines, we’ve built a world-class domestic supply chain based in coastal communities across the UK. Former fishermen have become captains of offshore wind service vessels and ex-North Sea oil workers have become wind turbine technicians. If there is an industry with a better record of delivering multi-billion-pound energy infrastructure projects, I’d like to see it.

By Luke Clark, Head of Public Affairs, RenewableUK

This article first appeared in BusinessGreen.

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